Science Museum cancels event as speakers withdraw over fossil fuel sponsorship

The Science Museum has been forced into cancelling a prominent panel discussion at the last minute after speakers withdrew from the event in protest at the museum’s highly controversial stance on fossil fuel sponsorship. ‘The Doors of Perception: Exploring Psychedelic Therapy’ was set to take place tonight in the Museum’s ‘Ronson Theatre’ and featured a lineup of leading researchers in pharmacology but, after learning of the museum’s ongoing partnerships with major fossil fuel producing companies, Professor Celia Morgan announced on Twitter yesterday that she would no longer be taking part, and it is understood that Dr Rosalind Watts also withdrew.

Science Museum Group Chair Mary Archer and Director Ian Blatchford have faced a growing backlash from scientists, young people and the public as they continue to defend their partnerships with the oil giants BP, Shell and Equinor, and the coal producing conglomerate Adani which is the sponsor of the museum’s new ‘Energy Revolution’ gallery set to open next year. Tonight’s event had been billed as ‘a fascinating panel discussion’ that would explore the potential benefits of psychedelics but the Museum’s website was updated last night to confirm that it would now no longer be taking place.  

This is just the latest case of members of the scientific community cutting their ties to the Science Museum Group over its ongoing partnerships with major polluters. Last November, many prominent scientists and former contributors announced that they will not work with the organisation again until it commits to ending its partnerships with fossil fuel companies. Among the signatories were leading climate scientists and several speakers that had taken part in the Museum’s series of ‘Climate Talks’ earlier in the year, as well as Steve and Dee Allen, researchers in global plastic pollution who declined to have their work included in the Museum’s permanent collection.

Representatives of Indigenous people also wrote to the Science Museum last December and called on it to cut ties to Adani after Director Ian Blatchford had dismissed the concerns of Adrian Burragubba, a traditional owner and spokesperson for the Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council in Australia, during Blatchford’s appearance on the BBC. 

But perhaps the most significant blow has been a series of high-profile resignations from the museum itself. In October, following mounting criticism of Shell’s sponsorship of the Museum’s ‘Our Future Planet’ exhibition, climate scientist Professor Chris Rapley – himself a former director of the Science Museum – resigned from its Advisory Board. In a letter explaining the reasons behind his departure, he wrote:

‘Given the reality of the climate crisis, the need to abolish fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and analyses such as the recent Carbon Tracker Report which bring into question the commitment of the oil and gas companies to do so, I disagree with the Group’s ongoing willingness to accept oil and gas company sponsorship.’

And just a few weeks later, as the COP26 Climate Summit opened in Glasgow, mathematician and presenter Dr Hannah Fry and Director of the Institute for Research in Schools Dr Jo Foster resigned from the Science Museum Group’s Board of Trustees, following the announcement that a new sponsorship deal with Adani had been signed. Writing in The Times, Hannah Fry set out the reasons behind her departure:

‘By allowing such public ties with these companies, I worry that the Science Museum gives the false impression that scientists believe the current efforts of fossil fuel companies are sufficient to avoid disaster.’

In particular, she highlighted the museum’s dismissiveness towards those that have been raising concerns:

In the last week, the museum has reacted defiantly amid the reasonable voices calling for change… This is a debate where young people are leading the charge, and I cannot in good conscience remain in post while the museum is not proactively engaging with the very people it was built to inspire.’

Following their resignations, former trustee Dr Sarah Dry highlighted how, during her time on the museum’s Board, she had opposed the museum’s decision to accept sponsorship from coal giant Adani.

Professor Christopher Jackson then also tweeted that he had turned down an invitation to apply to be a trustee at the Science Museum.

Despite organisers of last year’s COP26 Climate Summit making clear that, ‘existing commitments from the oil industry are insufficient and don’t align with global climate goals’, Archer and Blatchford have sought to defend their position by promoting the fossil fuel industry’s own narratives of climate delay, repeatedly arguing that:

‘These companies have the capital, geography, people and logistics to be major players in finding solutions to the urgent challenges of climate change.’

Speakers stepping back from events over the management’s stance is now becoming a regular occurrence, making it increasingly difficult for staff to put together its often high-profile public programme. At the beginning of 2021, writer George Monbiot, broadcaster Robin Ince and environmentalist Mark Lynas all withdrew from the Museum’s series of ‘Climate Talks’ and, more recently, violinist and composer Anna Phoebe and the organisation Space Rocks pulled out of a ‘Late’ event in November. Back in February, Brazilian digital artist João Queiroz also withdrew work from the upcoming ‘Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of Imagination’ exhibition.

The Science Museum Group is now finding itself increasingly isolated in its backing for fossil fuel producers. In February, the National Portrait Gallery announced that its 30-year sponsorship by BP would be coming to an end and, shortly after, the Scottish Ballet revealed that it had also ended its partnership with BP a month earlier. And in March, it emerged that the annual New Scientist Live festival had ended its partnership with BP, and no longer had fossil fuel companies as sponsors or exhibitors at the event. The British Museum is the only other national museum left with a prominent fossil fuel sponsor, and it is coming under intense pressure after receiving a formal submission last week outlining how pushing ahead with a new BP partnership ‘​​could leave the museum exposed to regulatory intervention’. And just last weekend, hundreds took part in a mass creative protest organised by the activist group BP or not BP? inside the British Museum, unfurling a huge 10-metre BP logo that was then powerfully broken apart and scattered across the museum’s galleries.